The science of why certain languages sound the way they do.

The Internet exploded a couple of weeks ago with Joshua Katz’s colorful map visualizations of American regional dialects, based on research by Dr. Bert Vaux of Cambridge University. The maps show who says what, where, noting the spread of regional dialects across the 48 contiguous states (Katz left out Alaska and Hawaii to simplify his statistical modeling). Katz also created a tool that allows users to see what cities are most similar linguistically to their hometowns (San Francisco, not surprisingly, is most similar to Oakland, California; San Jose, California; and Los Angeles, California; and least similar to Birmingham, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana); listed cities were limited to those with a population of at least 200,000.

Though we all know that the subtleties of language vary by geography, new research shows that geography may actually influence how we speak—that the physical reality of a place may have directly shaped the linguistic structure found there. In a recent study of almost 600 languages around the world and their regional context, Caleb Everett of the University of Miami found a strong correlation between high altitudes and spoken languages that included “ejective consonants,” or consonants spoken with a strong burst of air.

A map of the locations of the languages in the sample. Dark circles represent languages with ejectives, clear circles represent those without ejectives.

Image courtesy of Caleb Everett

Ejective consonants are formed by creating a pocket of air in the larynx instead of compressing it; the English language doesn’t have ejectives, but then again, it was formed on a relatively low-lying landmass. Everett posits that since air is less dense at high elevations, it’s easier to make such sounds (he bases this hypothesis on simple modeling of the vocal tract). The higher the elevation, the more likely it is that ejectives are found there; the correlation was found worldwide, including such diverse language stocks as Quechuan, Armenian, Salishan, and Southern Khoisan.


A audio demonstration of ejective consonants.

Only 15 percent of the world’s inhabited regions are in high elevation zones; a whopping 80 of 92 languages with ejectives were found to be located within 500 kilometers of a region exceeding 1500 meters in altitude. Though he doesn’t know for sure why ejectives are so often used in languages originally formed at high elevations, Everett says this is evidence that geography has a strong influence on the structure of languages, and that other ecological factors -- warm weather, for example, as revealed in another study, or drier air—may direct the sound system of languages in fundamental ways that we have yet to discover. He is currently pursuing research on the idea that a warmer climate can influence the syllable structure—more vowels and less consonants, say—of a language.

Top image: mathom/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    You Can’t Design Bike-Friendly Cities Without Considering Race and Class

    Bike equity is a powerful tool for reducing inequality. Too often, cycling infrastructure is tailored only to wealthy white cyclists.

  2. Amazon HQ2

    Without Amazon HQ2, What Happens to Housing in Queens?

    The arrival of the tech company’s new headquarters was set to shake up the borough’s real estate market, driving up rents and spurring displacement. Now what?

  3. A photo of a visitor posing for a photo with Elvis in downtown Nashville
    Perspective

    Cities: Don’t Fall in the Branding Trap

    From Instagram stunts to Edison bulbs, why do so many cities’ marketing plans try to convince people that they’re exactly like somewhere else?

  4. A photo of a new car dealership
    Transportation

    Subprime Auto Loans Are Turning Car Ownership Into a Trap

    A record 7 million Americans are three months late on their car payments, revealing what could be cracks in the U.S. economy.

  5. Equity

    The FBI's Forgotten War on Black-Owned Bookstores

    At the height of the Black Power movement, the Bureau focused on the unlikeliest of public enemies: black independent booksellers.